Crime and Human Rights (5): Decreasing Levels of Violence

Violence is obviously a human rights issue. Violent actions, either by the state or by fellow citizens, violate our physical integrity and personal security. Several articles of the Universal Declaration protect us against different forms of violence: art. 3 protects our right to life and personal security, art. 4 prohibits slavery, art. 5 prohibits torture etc.

Levels of violence throughout history

It’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but violence has been in decline throughout modern history.

Today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth. When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers – which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago – he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. … From the Middle Ages to modern times, we can see a steady reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence. Steven Pinker (source)

This is true for most kinds of violence: war, ethnic conflict, state violence (criminal punishment, torture, repression etc.), war, one-to-one violence (homicide) etc.:

When the criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured the records of every village, city, county, and nation he could find, he discovered that homicide rates in Europe had declined from 100 killings per 100,000 people per year in the Middle Ages to less than one killing per 100,000 people in modern Europe.

And since 1945 in Europe and the Americas, we’ve seen steep declines in the number of deaths from interstate wars, ethnic riots, and military coups, even in South America. Worldwide, the number of battle deaths has fallen from 65,000 per conflict per year to less than 2,000 deaths in this decade. Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, we have seen fewer civil wars, a 90 percent reduction in the number of deaths by genocide, and even a reversal in the 1960s-era uptick in violent crime. Steven Pinker (source)

A cognitive illusion

We tend to believe that the 20th century was the most bloody of all, and that the 21st hasn’t started any better. That’s probably a misconception or “cognitive illusion” fueled by unprecedented information flows. Today, we have magnificent information systems delivering facts, figures and images instantaneously. Compared to that, information about the centuries before is by definition more scarce: few images and newspaper reports, no television reports, less systematic historiography, less durable data sources etc.

That doesn’t make the present-day levels of violence acceptable. On the contrary. Rather than looking at history and concluding that man will always be violent, the recent decreases in levels of violence should encourage us to go all the way. And then it’s important to understand why the levels have gone down.

Why has violence declined?

One reason is undoubtedly the development of the modern state and its judicial apparatus. This apparatus can of course be used to inflict violence, but the risk of this happening has decreased as states have become more democratic, more respectful of the rule of law, and more sensitive to human rights. The democratic nature of many contemporary states has also diminished the risk of inter-state violence (this is the so-called democratic peace theory).

Another, and related, point is that

Thomas Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short – not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. … These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence. States can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband. Steven Pinker (source)

Yet another reason for the decrease in the levels of violence is the development of the modern economy. This development has increased the costs of violence. It’s easier to be violent towards your fellow human beings of you live in a subsistence economy and produce everything you need for yourself. When you depend on others for your job and income, your consumption goods, your transport etc. it becomes more costly to act in a violent way towards them. The same can be said of nations: like individuals, nations have become more interdependent in the globalized economy. Acting violently towards other nations has therefore become more costly. Self-sufficiency is no longer an option for nations either.

Yet another reason:

James Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one’s own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general. Steven Pinker (source)